Tuesday, January 24, 2006

John "Hal's Got the Paperwork" Stewart

DC has had trouble with John Stewart. They have five Green Lanterns (once again, Jade doesn't count) and each one was slated, after Rebirth, to appear regularly in a book. Hal got Green Lantern, Alan got JSA, Guy and Kyle each had roles in two miniseries, and John would get JLA.

The one year later solicits have revealed a few changes. JLA is being canned. John has only had a marginal role anyway, so its not much of a loss. Kyle's getting an ongoing. Guy's supposed to be headlining Green Lantern Corps when it actually starts (although I find it suspicious that it hasn't been solicited yet). John is only marginally mentioned.

He does, however, appear in the Green Lantern ongoing.

Just not nearly enough.

Yes, there's more to this.


Now, I like John Stewart. I think DC's writers do, also. But it's hard to think of things to do with him that aren't better suited to one of the other three. Hal, Guy, Alan, and Kyle all have distinctive aspects to their personality that just invite certain types of stories. Even the JLU version, when you get down to it, is basically a hard-ass version of Hal Jordan, and attracts the type of stories that in the regular DCU would go to Hal.

A lot of fans might tell you that the problem is that John has no distinctive aspects to his personality.

They would be wrong, of course.

John Stewart was heavily fleshed out in Green Lantern: Mosaic. Outside of Mosaic, I think John's written like a Virgo. Meticulous and detail-oriented, but still able to pull back, see the big picture and adjust accordingly. It's a good surface personality, and fits well into the Mosaic storyline, especially the issue where Hal confronted him. Hal thought his friend was losing his mind, but John was just undergoing such changes that his true self was bubbling to the surface. On the surface, however, John is a Virgo and Virgo isn't really an exciting and sexy sign. Their personality type isn't the kind you see in high adventure, not like a reckless Leo, a tempermental Aries, or a busyminded Gemini. The writers get distracted by these other personalities, and so they follow them and leave John alone.

That's one of the great things about Green Lantern: Rebirth to me. We see the John Stewart of Mosaic again. The mature John who kept his social activism/conscience. And it's not social conscience like Green Arrow. Oliver Queen mainly comes off as a blowhard. John Stewart doesn't simply sound off about the symptoms and the wrongness of the issue. He's an Earth-type, but his mind is a razor-sharp sword, that pierces to the heart of the matter. Even under the influence of Parallax, he's sharp enough to give Batman a verbal beating like he's never had before. And he follows up next issue by physically beating the snot out of the entire JLA (with a little help from Guy). This is the John we lost after Emerald Twilight. Our multifaceted rock. Our grounded philosopher. Our thinking bruiser. Our self-examining, endlessly questioning warrior/poet/social critic. John Stewart, the fully rounded, fully realized, fully effective character was back. If only for one mini-series.

As rich and deep and soulful as John is, he's still left to the wayside.



Why?

Is it the Earthly, solid surface to his personality? Does this superficial personality seem to boring in an action story? Does he lend himself better to introspection?
Or is it, as some contend, his race?

Or is it a combination of the the two?

John's motives, values, and personality encourage social activism. Now, this is responsible social activism, mind you, not simply the venting partisan paranoia of some loudmouths we know, but a fully rounded fully realized responsible consideration of the issues. John is no slave to a political ideology, or any foolish consistancy. Nor is he fickle or reactionary. He is a truly radical thinker. He avoids camp mentality. Instead, he's a reasoner who adjusts, learns, and grows. John's social activism works best in a situation that shows both sides of an uncertain conflict. There, he can mediate a blanced solution that involves openness, education and understanding.
To say it short and simple, a good John Stewart story needs to be long and complex.

This leads us to two problems. First, and this may be a shock, John is a black man. That is not a coloring error. This gives us a combination-prejudice problem with his writing. From his story options glares one stunningly obvious theme. This theme was used well at his conception, but after 34 years writers may still find this theme too irresistable not to use, which then leads to a paranoid perception of John-- "He's black, so if we do a racial tolerance story it'll be seen as stereotyping" combines with "He's black, so let's make it a racial tolerance story" to create John's most recent role in Green Lantern, which involves bitching at Hal for joining the USAF, calling Hal at the scene of a car accident, bitching at Hal for the paperwork, and giving Hal a message Superman felt to socially awkward to deliver personally.

I know we all have our personal crusades, and many of us pursue a social cause exclusively. But John is a comic book character. He needs to be flexible and appeal to the widest audience possible from the start, so that he will sell, and develop a large enough fanbase to stick around. And John has loads of potential. We need him to stick around for another Gerard Jones. We don't need him slaughtered in the company crossover.

Secondly, John suffers from the stigma of social commentary. As superhero fans, we don't like it and we don't want to hear about it. I don't believe this is because fanboys are fangirls are necessarily bigoted by nature. Variety is the spice of life, and I've never heard objections to a character being a different gender, color or sexual orientation than is usually seen unless the character has been previously established as otherwise (though, for the record, I could've sworn Kyle was Asian from JLA those first few years, and I know for a fact I'm not the only one who made that mistake, so him not being 100% Irish isn't really a big deal) such as the Starboy reboot (which yielded a really awesome character design). It's more because any social awareness stories are reminders of the crappiness of existence, which we are attempt to escape from by diving into our stories about heroes and villains with absurb powers and motivations. A little reality, yes, is welcome. We want to laugh, so jokes about trying to make the bills and such are wecome. We want our bad guys as bad as bad can be, so a certain degree of grim and grittiness is generally acceptable. We want to empathize with our characters (just not through their helplessness!), so stories of complex motivations, failed romance, and a certain degree of tragedy is also encouraged.

There is, however, a limit.

In general, we don't like to be reminded of the idiocy of the human race as a whole.

We're after superhero stories, not after-school specials. If we want a life lesson, we will look for it. But as it is, if I see a female character I want her beating up bad guys, not wailing endlessly about the double standard. If I see a gay character, and he wants to get married, well, he'd better just move to Massachusetts and get on with it rather than spend a twelve-issue storyline fighting the governor. Again, more butt kicking, less preaching. And if I see a different colored character, I do not want them stopped at the door of the country club while the bad guy gets away. I want them to bust through, beat up the bad guy, and then get thanked.

Part of the problem of "A Very Special Issue" stories is the major let-down at the end. The injustice is too big to just punch away. The hero is usually deeply unsatisfied with the outcome, because it must be realistic (realistic = no hope). In order to lend weight to the issue, a feeling fo helplessness and impotence must be portrayed.

Case in point: Green Lantern: Brother's Keeper.

Kyle Rayner's Assistant Terry Berg (who, up until this point was a cute fun character with a crush on Kyle) is seen on a date with his boyfriend (who is a dead ringer for Kyle, talk about having a type, Terry!). They kiss in front of your standard, faceless, mob of morons. Morons beat the crap out of Terry. Kyle spends half the issue in the hospital waiting room, and the other half beating up the morons (which was not nearly as satisfying as it should have been) and asteroids. Oh, and bitching to Wally and Hal. GLAAD apparently gave Judd Winick some sort of award over this comic.
GLAAD knows shit about comic books.

Many fans still despise this storyline. Mentioning the name Terry Berg will attract much venom on most message boards, as the character is seen as a means to "hijack Green Lantern" for a social agenda. I very much doubt this is a reaction to the social issue itself. It's more the mood of the story. It was depressing and hopeless. The theme was helplessness. Kyle was coming off of an unbelievable power-up. Winick manufactured this situation to drive home the point of pointlessness. Kyle beats the crap out of the perpetrators, but cannot change their views, cannot change what they have done, and ultimately, cannot change the world. He's so insanely powerfuly compared to the featured morons he even feels like a bully for beating them up. The editorial point of the story was to make Kyle hate humanity and want to leave Earth.

It worked. Kyle was so disgusted he up and left that night, and so did many of his fans.

I'm sorry, this sucks.

I don't want to read a superhero story and get this much powerlessness out of it. I have little enough power in reality, I want hope and triumph in my fantasies. Villains so evil as to be inhuman must run away in the end with their tails between their legs. Heroes, even when setback, must retain some measure of control over their lives. Helplessness, injustice, that's fine for the middle of the story. But you don't end it with no progress. The situation needs resolution or resolve. At the end of the stroy, the problem must be solved or the hero must be resolved to solve it at a later date. In addition to doubling the hero's determination for change, some small progress must at least be made. Just one person needs to change their mind for the better.

This is the twofold problem of social commentary stories. The situation cannot be properly resolved, because it is a direct mirror to our society's unsolved problems. The underlying problem is too big to be resolved by a single person, and if it is resolved it is disrespecting the problem as a whole and destroying the faint reflection of reality in the story. Solving the situation that stirs up the underlying problem in a manageable storyline in a way that is satisfactory to the readers and respectful of the difficulty is a delicate line, and one most writers do not have the balance to walk. And they know this. So many of them don't even try.

Witness Wonder Woman. She can never eradicate sexism. There's only one of her. Yet, in the early stories, she seemed unstoppable. No one could resist her reasoning. She used a message of tolerance and understanding (and... hehe.. loving submission) to turn nearly every enemy she made into a friend, even that Nazi baroness! She's suffered badly since Crisis, and I think that's because they kept the "Mission to spread Tolerance" but will never let her win anymore. When writers use her to bring awareness to women's issues (The Once and Future Story), there's a hideous fatalism to the story. You are reading a tragedy. This is Wonder Woman's life mission, and it is doomed to tragedy. Wonder Woman should not be a tragedy, it should be fun and hopeful. She should be something women want to be!

Likewise, John Stewart should be someone fun to be.

He has one of the best concepts in all of comicdom. But due to the combination of being the only fully non-caucasion male Green Lantern flying about and having a history of being used for social commentary (good and bad stuff), he's become difficult to handle. Stewart's most unique strength is his social conscience. He looks at people and power and questions their motives, he looks at his friends and questions their motives, he looks at himself and questions his own motives. He's a character that lends himself to social activism.

But it is hard, in these pessimistic times, to tell a tale of social awareness and instill hope.

Green Lantern: Mosaic managed this. I think it's because the mirror wasn't so direct. I mean, it was firking obvious that they were talking about tolerance, but the messages wasn't hammered into the reader's head. It wasn't simplified, if anything, it was complicated more. Simply because it was damned wierd! Religious tolerence was explored with the Orthodox poulty, homicidal triplets and the displaced Crow Ridge Indian Reservation. Understanding through singing plants, Sex and violence and resurrection, something red, yellow trucks, yuppie copycats and the whole damned mess was about cultural tolerance!

And more than that, Green Lantern: Mosaic was fun. John got to make jokes.

Now that I think of it, Star Trek has the same advantage. By exploring social issues through an alien culture, they maintained just enough closeness to recognize the issue, but had enough of a distance that fans could explore the situation objectively, and engender enough hope that the audience doesn't feel like total defecation when the credits role.

This is the main advantage of all science fiction.

So why the hell are our Superheroes spending so much time in earthly problems they can't solve?

I mean, I think its vital to the story and the message of any social awareness plot that the heroes be allowed to change things for the better. Social commentary set on Earth restricts that change so as not to compromise the "mirror" so much that we can't suspend our disbelief anymore.

18 comments:

  1. Personally, I wouldn't mind if the comic book world didn't mirror ours quite so much.

    I mean there's already aliens and magic and superheroes accepted as fact. There are made up countries and wars and things like that.

    I wouldn't mind if Wonder Woman really did manage to lessen hostilities and spread tolerance to a wider audience. I wouldn't mind learning that the presence of heroines such as Diana or Power Girl really did inspire a woman's movement that made some serious changes in terms of women's employment: inspiring better means to protect against sexual harassment and getting the same wages as men.

    I certainly wouldn't mind if we did have a gay hero who married his or her love interest anywhere in the country. As long as it was treated like any other superhero marriage. Like Wally and Linda's, like Lois and Clark's, like Dick and Kory's...let the excitement be for the wedding itself, not for the gender/race of the participants.

    The fact is, superheroes are supposed to make the world better, so I want them to be successful at it.

    I'd like to see John utilized for the traits that I think make him interesting. To me, John is the most stable Lantern, the one who is the most centered. When I read John, even when he is having a crisis of confidence, I get the feeling that he knows exactly who he is and his place in the universe. And he's passionate and unwavering in his beliefs.

    And considering the themes of Green Lantern, the way the rings work, the emphasis of will...John should be a very formidable presence. Kyle's got the imagination, but lacks confidence and centered-ness. Hal's got focus and confidence but seems often uncertain of his own place. Guy's got the passion but not the stability.

    I can see why John's not often a starring character in comics: it's hard to write a character so strong and sure as the lead. But there is no excuse for not using him as the awesome support character he is. When things are going crazy, John's a solid rock; when the others are floundering, John knows where he's standing.

    And they should be using *that* aspect of him a lot more, and save the politics for some other time.

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  2. You've just illustrated why I like Todd Rice's outing, it's not a big political deal, it's just characterization. (the editor has even promised he won't be abused to make a point!)

    John's ideal as the solid supporting character, though, but I've noticed his tendancy to social activism is what gets spotlighted when he does lead a story. Using his supportive, solid side as the primary aspect is a surefire way to keep him a supporting cahracter.

    Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it means his agenda and characterization is secondary to that of the lead character.

    I was just thinking about the situation with Hal right now. John is the perfect confidante. Besides his naturally strong, solid personality, and his closeness with Hal, John also has experienced that Parallax possession. And John was supportive prior to that. I wouldn't be surprised if we found out down the line that the two were partnered specifically because John could offer that support. But, because the central characterization is Hal's, we're not going to see John used in that role. Right now Hal's not allowing himself comfort or understanding for what he's been through. So, we don't see him confiding in John, or any of the rest of his supporting cast. John is there as a work relationship. Hal doesn't spend any other time with him, and in fact, might actively be minimizing his time with John so as to avoid getting the sympathy he doesn't feel he deserves.

    I have my fingers crossed that in the future we'll see more of John the Rock, but if there's any hope for a solo series starring John Stewart, it's dashed by the stigma of social commentary right now.

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  3. I really enjoyed this insight, especially in regards to Wonder Woman and how writers don't like to let their heroes win anymore. One of the things that delighted me about Tom Strong was the idea that after every issue the world was a better place.

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  4. It's truly a joy to read this blog.

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  5. John is my favorite GL...not sure why. I see GL (maybe because they wear green)as military men (and women) and John has that military aura/attitude about him. I hope when the JLA starts up again in June that the JLA's GL is Stewart.

    I was never a fan of Hal and can't stand the fact the Kyle won't come out of the closet...I'm mean the guy changes outfits every five seconds... :)

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  6. I miss Mosaic. John was at his most interesting then. I don't necessarily see John as the most stable Lantern, but certainly the most thoughtful.

    Oh, and the Jade bashing has got to stop. I contend that she's no worse off than any other character who had to suffer under Marz' pen, and lately she's been fleshed out nicely.

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  7. Though I'm not a reader of GL (there, I went and said it), you describe JS as someone who gets hit with a double-whammy: "He's black, so if we do a racial tolerance story it'll be seen as stereotyping" combines with "He's black, so let's make it a racial tolerance story." Man, that's a tough one. Yet another example of the road to hell being paved with...

    And yeah, I agree with you on Wonder Woman (and Kyle in the TB story). Reading about how even our superheroes are destined to be ground down by the problems of the world is absolutely no fun.

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  8. Oh, and the Jade bashing has got to stop. I contend that she's no worse off than any other character who had to suffer under Marz' pen, and lately she's been fleshed out nicely

    I can't speak for Ragnell, but I know personally, the stories in which I dislike Jade the most are in Winick and Raab's run. Marz's Jade, (in the 90s-100s), I actually found her the most tolerable. Even in her JLA side appearances, she was less than ideal.

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  9. The link was nice of you.

    And here I thought my ramblings were worth nothing.

    :P

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  10. I (as usual, it seems) am with Devon. Ragnell, your blog is a JOY to read, and I'm sorry its traken me 'til now to come on by. Your insights rock my world!

    Now, as the Johnny-come-lately and a lover of Jade in many of her incarnations, what's with the Jade bashing?

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  11. (Before I get into this -- Thanks for all the kind words, guys. I really appreciate it.)

    Poor John. His good, solid, earthy stability is so boring that even in an entire post dedicated solely to him, the conversation turns not even to the scintillating topic of Kyle Rayner's hindquarters, but to Kyle's demanding, demeaning ex-lover.

    Yes, I dislike her. This is well documented elsewhere on this site. It's not the gentle, affectionate bashing poor Hal endures. No, I feel a complete and utter hatred for this character, and the more I examine her, the more I dislike her. I urge you not to blame Ron Marz for this, as I actually liked her during his run -- up until she got beat up by Fatality and my sister and I dropped the book in disgust. We'd onyl seen his Donna Tryo by then, so we assumed he couldn't write women. But I later found out that his Sara Pezzini and Alex DeWitt prove that he's capable of writing a likeable female (and I'm now a little regretful I turned down Sojourn so often and can't find it now). I also noticed that pretty much every writer wrote her like he did, with the exception of Raab, who took her past the line of no return (and Merayn too). Marz's story with Kyle walking in on her and Lucas just continued that downward spiral.

    Basically, I think she doesn't deserve her fanbase. She has one because she's Alan's kid, has green skin, and is female. Take a look at her behavior -- would she go over so well if she weren't one of the above? Probably not.

    If that's not enough for you, and you want to discuss it at length -- first check here where everyone at Comic-Bloc learned that although I may not be reasonable in their eyes about this one, I am still reasoning about it and more than willing to share.

    But aside from that, I'd rather not get too far into it about Jade anymore.

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  12. Well, I'm not actually a bog jade fan, I just think she's been treated badly enough by writers that her potential is wasted. I like her as a non-ring bearning earth woman with the same powers-- that's cool-- but agree, as written, she has been pretty unlikable. I do like he in Outsiders, where she serves to defuse the hotheaded men.

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  13. I'd buy a good John Stewart GL title. Mosaic was underrated at the time it came out. But I loathe the idea of John, or any GL character, as a military guy. I think it works against the nature of the concept.

    Green Lantern could be a fun, imaginative book. Having it be just "arrest the bad guy, follow orders, file the report" is dull and deadens the appeal of a concept built around imagination, perception and the bizarre and alien.

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  14. I persist in believing there are no bad characters, just badly-written (or badly-drawn) ones. I'm curious as to why you never mention the people who write and draw the characters you examine. These characters literally do not exist unless they're being written and drawn by a real person, so it stands to reason that any discussion of their "personalities" would need to touch on the actual people writing and drawing them. From Emerald Genesis: "Gerard Jones (then writer of GREEN LANTERN, GREEN LANTERN: MOSAIC, and contributer to GLC QUARTERLY) blended ideas from Niven and other creators to further expand the GL universe. Jones' tenure changed the readers' perception of the Guardians from a group of "benevolent little blue men" to a society with motivations *very* different than that of humans. How far this story would have went may never be known. In rapid succession, MOSAIC and the Quarterly were cancelled."

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  15. The Writers and characterization issue is a really long explanation for me to go into right now. I need some time to collect my thoughts on it before I explain why I like to avoid explaning characters that way.

    But for now, it's like a cheat. It's pulling back the curtain. The suspension of disbelief collapses when you bring the writer into it.

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  16. It's kind of impossible to analyze the product without analyzing the creator, though. You can't blame characters for their actions, but you can attribute their motivations to one writer's agenda or another.

    One line from the (very well-written) post that struck me: writers not wanting to let their heroes win anymore. How much of that do you think has to do with this being one of the most cynical times in our country's history? It seems insultingly escapist to create comics in which the heroes win consistently when the "heroes" in reality lose so often, and writers who do so could easily be accused of propaganda meant to numb the irate mind.

    Wonder Woman: icon of hope, or downtrodden symbol of everything that's wrong with society? I suppose she's big enough to be both, depending on the writer and the circumstances. I'd prefer the hope angle, but I'd feel dirty reading it every month while reality continues to backslide.

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  17. HA! I think I love you.

    And blaming the "creator" for the character is the lazy way. Sure, everything is the creator's fault, (which you demonstrated nice in your anti-Judd post, which are what made me love you in the first place). But if it's done over a long time span, saying, "Oh, Jade's had crappy creators" sounds silly.

    And, goddess, yes, Jade was a waste of panel space. My inner feminist doesn't care at all to admit that I clapped when she died. :)

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  18. So, this post was written a while ago and I don't even know if this comment will be read, but I recently found my way here through that wonderful look at the Black Panther cover you did at Newsarama's blog. I got caught up in your front page and I'm working my way through the archives you have here, which is how I found this post.

    Anyway, the moment I read the Mosaic arc in the regular Green Lantern series, John became my favorite. I liked that, even though he separated the cultures, he knew he had to stay and try to build something. I liked that he threw away his gloves so he could be closer to the power and feel it better. I've only read a few issues of Green Lantern: Mosaic because I had a very limited allowance at the time and my brother was the real GL fan, but I did read the one where he and Hal fight and all Hal's duplicates are the same and each of John's are different. That was when, for me, John became more than a character in a comic book and became human.

    While reading this post, I found myself wondering who out there could write John as a person and a superhero and a builder of things (buildings, communities, families, etc). The name that popped into my head was Christopher Priest.

    I know all about the complaints. I checked out the link to the "very special Green Lantern" and agree that probably wasn't the best thing, but I have one main reason to point to Priest: Steel.

    Priest's run on Steel was exciting and touching and fun and he wrote John Henry Irons how I thought John Stewart should have been written after nutso Hal took out the Corps. (Although, I'd have wanted his power ring to keep working so he could still kick alien ass and such.)

    During Priest's run on Steel, Steel moved to Jersey City and... Well, check out Priest's explanation he knows better and he's more fun to read than I am. The important thing is that Steel was there trying to make something. He was trying to help the hospital. He was trying to make Jersey City better. He was trying to work with his niece (before the Superman crew got their hooks into her and made her an annoying, whiney stereotype) to make a family. These are the things that John Stewart should be doing, especially since his identity is public on Earth. (Unless they retconned that and I missed it.) I guess that Hal's the official GL of Earth now, though, so that won't be seen anytime soon.

    Wouldn't it be great if John were working in the aftermath of the Rann-Thanagar war to rebuild the societies that were hurt? I'd love to see him directing a small team of GLs in an effort to stabilize the situation between the two planets and mediate the peace. He should be used to show that the GL Corps isn't just a reactionary police force that comes in with rings blazing, but they want to help create a lasting peace in the universe through trust and understanding (and then bust heads if someone gets out of line).

    Ever since Green Lantern: Mosaic has ended, the writers and editors seemed to be pushing John away from what he was. I remember being disappointed when he took the ring from Kyle because I thought that, at that point in his life, John should have realized that by being an architect he was doing more good for people on Earth than he had during his last two stints as a cosmic cop.

    Here's hoping the real John will be back soon and the writers and editor will stop trying to push the JLU personality on him.

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